Doubt, Analytical Method and Empiricism: Shaping the Modern Mind, and
Marching Toward the
In many ways
Descartes takes Platonic philosophy and formulizes it along secular lines to
produce the foundation of modern philosophy and scientific reasoning. Locke's
empirical approach will round this out, and Newton will apply it to affirm its
validity. Voltaire will bring these concepts together, and to Europe, and
use them to revolutionize human relationships.
on Method 1637
Cogito Ergo Sum
“The long chains … [math’s ability
to simplify and correctly work thru exceptionally difficult problems] … had
given me reason to believe that all things which can fall under the knowledge
of man succeed each other in the same way [all things can be understood thru
mathematical reasoning/principles], and provided that…[the method is
correct…we can understand all things this way]”
“…to apply them [agreed upon mathematical principles] to
every other subject to which they should prove suitable...everything was so complex I should express them with
numbers (simplicity)...I should borrow all the best in geometrical analysis,
and in algebra…”
In other words,
we should apply mathematical principles to
his “method” down into four parts: (Kemerling)
1. Systematic Doubt:
Question everything and all previous authorities.
Accept as true only
what is absolutely certain. This is perhaps his most radical and basic
step: the foundation of all scientific thinking.
(For the sake of English 258, this is what we're most interested in.)
Divide every question into manageable
parts and name the parts. Assign symbols (as in numbers etc.) to elements, so
that they can be better understood and managed (think of using calculus to
understand economies, the movement of planets, light...etc etc).
Consider how impossible it would have been to complete the human genome
project or invent modern medicines without this approach: there would never
have been a periodic table of elements to begin with.
3. Synthesis or Deduction via the test of Rational Intuition:
Begin with the simplest issues and ascend to the more complex.
Start with things you can prove and work from there; make no large
assumptions upon which to base a theory.
4. Avoidance of Deductive Error:
Review frequently enough
to retain the whole argument at once. Re-test, re-test, re-test to
ensure that you don't have to much confidence to your theory; continually
look for empirical means to test it.
to this method, Descartes came up with some underlying assumptions as well:
1. Nature itself has a geometrical-mathematical order or
form (the assumption of the new field of physics)— this is a metaphysical view
about the nature of existence itself (ontology).
2. All knowledge can be ordered or organized
geometrically (i.e. that all our true judgments or beliefs are rationally
connected like the parts of a geometrical demonstration). This is an
epistemic view: a philosophy concerning what true knowledge is and how it can
3. Only when our understanding takes on a
geometrical-mathematical order or form can it represent correctly the real
nature of things—also an epistemological view.
profoundly effect Enlightenment philosophers: by understanding the
inherently logical/mathematically perfect order of the universe we can
understand man's place in that universe and we can govern ourselves -- and
each other? -- accordingly.
Skepticism": Cogito Ergo Sum = I Think, Therefore I Am.
a) Do not assume anything
b) Reject as “truth” that founded only Authority (people
have prejudices and make errors, even in math, where we can prove that the
errors are human and not objective)
c) Reject as “truth” subjective (un-test-able)
So how do these
translate into "the cogito"? If the true skeptic doubts
everything, he must doubt the reality of his own existence, and so
Descartes does, then attempting to come up with rational "proof" of his own
existence. He famously deduces that if there is someone asking the
question "Do I exist" there must be someone doing the asking;
all other explanations are rationally false (someone cannot ask if he exists
unless there is someone to do the asking). In other words, someone is
thinking about whether or not he exists, and this proves he exists.
Yeah, I agree: this sounds more like Dude, Where's My Car? than it
does philosophy, but whatever.
Descartes on God:
Deduces that God Exists (408): "I bethought myself to find out from whence
I had learned to think of something more perfect than I; and I knew for
certain that it must be from some nature which in reality was more perfect....
I could not derive it from myself; so that it remained that it had been put in
me by a nature truly more perfect than I...God."
The logical error in this deduction:
Descartes violates his own "radical skepticism" from the previous pages: the
concept of "perfection" or "more perfect" is a concept (an idea), and not
necessarily a thing that can be observed. We can directly observe people
forming false concepts (the world is flat; women are inferior to men etc.), so
the idea/concept "perfection" does not prove the existence of perfection
itself, only the existence of the idea itself. So, Descartes' own method
proves the existence of the concept, not the "thing itself", "God".
Essay Concerning Human Understanding
421 Not born with knowledge ("No Innate Ideas"); born
with a "tabula rasa": blank slate. This is a direct response to
Plato's theory that man is born with innate understanding of the "Ideals"
422 All knowledge derived from EXPERIENCE: SENSATION OR
Sensation: perception of objective world;
what we learn from experiencing reality thru our senses. Note that
this would include what we receive thru language -- what others tell us,
Reflection: “the notice which the mind takes of its own
operations” (what we would call "consciousness" or simply "thinking"). Note: this
"reflection" includes “passions” (what we would call "emotions").
“These two … [Sensation and Reflection] … are to me the
only originals from whence all our ideas take their beginnings.”
Note mammoth political/social
(and psychological, educational etc.) implications: Intelligence is a product of environment (experience), not
birth, social class, lineage etc. Intelligence is accessible to all.
Thus: "all men are created equal."
We are also interested in how this
theory sets the platform for Locke's most important political
Newton (1642 – 1727) :
Newton takes Descartes'
philosophy (the Cartesian Method), formalizes and perfects it, and proves
it by combining it with Empiricism (observation, Locke etc).
Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica ("Mathematical
Principles Of Natural Philosophy") (1687)
-- Invents calculus:
the analytical method Descartes' said we should use to simplify human
thinking: (note: calculus is simultaneously created by Leibnitz)
Formally applies mathematical knowledge to explaining
physical phenomena: focus on purely factual laws describing physical
phenomena: applies Descartes' Method, proves mathematical principles
can explain natural phenomena/universe
Uses experiment (empiricism) as basis of knowledge. Knowledge not based on hypothesis alone but
on observation verified through symbolic logic (inductive basis of science: facts lead toward
theories): applies Locke et al's empiricism.
In so doing he develops what is often
The first “mind without metaphysics”; or we could say he takes the "meta" out
of "metaphysics": that is to say, Newton is the first to explain the
workings of the universe without defaulting to faith or God or "the Gods"
When pushed to explain why the
laws of physics are what they are (a metaphysical question), he famously
replies "I don't know." In other words, he adopts Descartes' view
that we should not call assumptions knowledge: we only "know" those things
that we are able to prove and accept as certain; he sticks to self
these open the doors to:
1) Harnessing The Scientific
Revolution. These ideas finalize the philosophy and science and paint
the way for an explosion in scientific exploration, knowledge and
application; essentially, these philosophies unlock Galileo's genius and
make it something anyone can learn and apply to any question
concerning the natural universe.
2) Democracy: Thomas Jefferson bases
the fundamental constitutional premise that "all men are created equal" upon
Locke's philosophy of "no innate ideas": regardless of gender, race, class
or religion, we are ALL born with a tabula rasa, and therefore knowledge/truth
becomes accessible to all
who can learn and apply the methodology. Democracy, like science, is
also predicated on skepticism: never fully trusting the word/findings
of previous authorities.
Industrial Revolution: Once clearly defined and established through fact,
these ideas spark a revolution in applied knowledge: technology.
Descartes, Locke and Newton etc. don't just make it possible to study the
universe but to harness its power and engineer its structure.
It's safe to say that without these
emerging Enlightenment philosophies, we would still have king or queen, we
would still have slavery, you would not be able to vote, our legal system
would be almost entirely based on torture, we would have no electricity, no
motors of any kind running on coal, steam, fossil fuels etc., we
wouldn't have toilets and running water, medicine would still consist almost
entirely of leeches and prayer and nearly every person in this class would
die by the time he or she reached 30...75% of all children would die before
the age of 5....